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ESPN’s racial drama is office politics on steroids

By Rich Danker 

Recently, the New York Times reported on a leaked phone conversation between ESPN’s Rachel Nichols and her employer. That conversation must’ve been the polite version. Not the version she would have told her girlfriends over a bottle of wine. 

In the conversation, Nichols spoke with Adam Mendelsohn, a corporate flack whose most famous client is Lebron James, about how the network elevated fellow host Maria Taylor at Nichols’ expense.  

“I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world — she covers football, she covers basketball,” Nichols said in July 2020. “If you need to give her more things to do because you are feeling pressure about your crappy longtime record on diversity — which, by the way, I know personally from the female side of it — like, go for it. Just find it somewhere else. You are not going to find it from me or taking my thing away.” 

Nichols had reason enough to sanitize her rhetoric: saying anything disparaging to a PR guy like Mendelsohn ran the risk of becoming media gossip. However, she didn’t know ESPN employees aligned with Taylor were listening back at headquarters through a live video camera. Eventually, they leaked the recording to the New York Times. The paper dropped the story amidst Taylor’s $8 million per year contract demand 

Despite choosing her words carefully, the Times framed Nichols as a racially insensitive bully. She apologized on TV and a minion of Taylor’s replaced her for the NBA Finals sideline coverage. The targeting of Nichols within her own company shows how potent a factor race now plays in what used to be the banal terrain of office politics.  

Need leverage in getting a raise? Do what Taylor did and use the media to incriminate a rival. 

Need to protect yourself from being in the wrong demographic? Do what Adrian Wojnarowski and badmouth a colleague caught complaining about affirmative action.  

Want to show that you can toe the corporate line? Do what Kendrick Perkins and Richard Jefferson did following Nichols’ mea culpa and pile on company talking points.  

Unhinged racialization of workplace conflict is what happens when the parameters for judging racism fall by the wayside. The old way of determining racist behavior was like rooting out other forms of misconduct: facts, context, and intent trumped subjective considerations like optics and emotion. 

The variables are now flipped and all it takes is a little creativity to racialize a dispute. Or simply the capacity of the New York Times to report, as it did in the case of Taylor vs. Nichols, that one party is “Black” and the other is “White.” 

There’s smart analysis tracing the busting of workplace norms around race and other social issues to the liberal legal movement. But a better explanation might require looking at the problem the other way around: why are today’s office politics so vicious? 

It may be that an economy dominated by large companies coopts talented people into taking extreme measures to compete for employer attention.  

ESPN exemplifies this dynamic. A small cast of personalities compete for a handful of roles. Most network stars can be easily replaced. When talent is the commodity, relationships drive outcomes. Thus, this is how office politics takes over an organization. 

Today’s race-based variant of it has spread through law, finance, consulting, politics, media, and sports because talent drives these venues rather than products.  

Product-based jobs, which markets drive rather than relationships, are increasingly automated or redefined. Talent-based jobs are therefore more coveted, especially the ones that come with the fulfilling aspect of decision-making. 

Racial conflict has become the fad strategy for advancement within this realm. The breathless reporting of it within ESPN and other high-profile workplaces is practically a how-to guide for corporate promotion.  

Though less publicized because it makes for boring copy, most racialized office politics involves white men targeting other white men. For example, a complaint from an overweight, aging, washed up suit about “too many white guys” can shed pounds, years, and cobwebs off him in the eyes of his HR department. Who else did the 34-year-old Maria Taylor learn this game from?  

Americans are accustomed to performative behavior from politicians. But how do they like it when all other types of elites sound like politicians? Metrics like pollingTV ratings, and buying habits suggest that there’s little appetite for racial posturing from people who don’t have a direct stake in it. 

The costs of office politics get passed on in some form to customers, and they don’t have to accept it. 

Now, many CEOs are waiting for a leader within their ranks to challenge the racial conflict model of office politics so they can get on with life. They know it’s hurting morale, disrupting productivity, and turning off customers. However, they’re afraid of becoming fodder for another New York Times hit piece, so they continue to fund and enable a farce. 

Makes you wonder how they got their jobs in the first place. 

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Rich Danker


Rich Danker worked in politics from 2010-2019 before entering the business world. He served in the Trump administration as a senior advisor at the U.S. Treasury and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission after running several federal election and advocacy campaigns. His writing has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and he was a columnist for Forbes.com.

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